Meningitis in your words

Denise Waterton's story

  • Location: England
  • Categories: Meningococcal
  • Age: Adult 25-59
  • Relationship: Self
  • Outcome: Recovery with after effects
Denise Waterton
It was early 2007 and I was feeling the healthiest I'd ever been. At 54 I had just run a half-marathon and given up my job as a GP's receptionist to work as a nail technician. 

Then one Saturday evening I started to feel feverish and decided to have an early night. By lunchtime the next day, I was nearly dead.

I felt like I was coming down with the flu and thought perhaps the half-marathon had run me down, as I was usually so robust health-wise. My joints ached so much even having the duvet on top of me hurt. I also had a headache, my teeth wouldn't stop chattering and I was freezing cold. I took some painkillers and went to sleep, but my head and joints still ached when I woke up in the morning.

When I tried to get out of bed my legs crumpled underneath me and I collapsed. My partner Neil called the out-of-hours doctor who said it sounded like flu, but agreed to come round within the next two hours. 

But in the following 20 minutes, I deteriorated rapidly. I started to drift in and out of consciousness, and Neil knew we couldn't wait, so he called an ambulance. 

When the paramedics arrived, I was still conscious but they couldn't find a pulse. Then the GP arrived earlier than expected, pulled back the bedcovers and saw that blotches had started to appear on my legs

The doctor gave me a shot of penicillin - which probably saved my life as I had contracted meningococcal meningitis.

"My daughter gently took my hand and said: 'Mum, they're going to put you to sleep for a little while. I love you.' All I could see was the absolute terror in her eyes."

I was rushed to Hemel Hempstead hospital, where I was taken into the resuscitation unit. I was still conscious but had started having breathing problems - I felt like I was drowning and it was a terrifying sensation.

My daughter, Laura, 29, had been on her way down to visit for the day, and arrived at the hospital shortly afterwards, closely followed by my father, and son Jody, 31. 

I was not really with it by this point, but with the appearance of my whole family, I knew something was wrong. My daughter gently took my hand and said: 'Mum, they're going to put you to sleep for a little while. I love you.' All I could see was the absolute terror in her eyes.

That's the last thing I remember - at 1pm I was put into an induced coma so my body could concentrate its energies on fighting the infection.  My body was now severely swollen and covered in a rash.
The next day as I was not responding to treatment, as a last resort the doctors decided to try the drug Xigris; this was the last option, and my family was told that it would only give me a 40 per cent chance of pulling through and, if I hadn't responded by that Friday, there would be nothing left to do. 

Thankfully, my body did respond and, 14 days later they decided I was well enough to be brought out of the coma. But as I came round I struggled to breathe so had to have an emergency tracheotomy under a general anaesthetic. 

I remember snatches of those first few days, but I was suffering the most terrible hallucinations almost permanently, and couldn't begin to grasp what had happened to me. It was terrifying and I couldn't speak because of the tracheotomy. 

My family were obviously overwhelmed with relief, though, and I can remember my son saying over and over: 'I'd forgotten how blue your eyes are, Mum.'

"I'm so grateful to be alive, but I used to be a fit, active woman and I do mourn for her."

Slowly, over the next week I began to regain full consciousness. The penny eventually dropped and I realised that I had just missed two weeks of my life. I was incredibly lucky to be alive, but I had a long recovery ahead. I had lost two-and-a-half stone in weight and my muscles were wasted, so I couldn't walk. 

The septicaemia had destroyed the blood vessels in my feet, so when I did try to walk they developed ulcers because the tissue was so weak and sensitive. My kidneys had failed, so I needed to go to the loo all the time. The doctors wanted to send me to a rehab centre, but all I wanted was to be at home. I knew I would heal better there, so I was allowed home six weeks later.

Nineteen months on I am back to normal life, but my health has been badly affected. I have stage three kidney failure, which means my damaged kidneys still function but not as well. I also have tinnitus in both ears, swathes of wound-like scars on my feet from the septicaemia, painful joints and lethargy. 

Controlling the joint pain was a long process of trial and error with painkillers, but it's now manageable and I've learned to control the tiredness by resting often. I had low times and still do, so have taken antidepressants.
I'm so grateful to be alive, but I used to be a fit, active woman and I do mourn for her. If Neil hadn't acted when he did, I would have died. If someone you know has flu-like symptoms, keep checking on them, even through the night - bacterial meningitis can kill in hours, not days. 

Fortunately, I lived to get married to Neil on my 55th birthday and I'm now back at work, but things could have been so very different.

Denise Waterton
April 2009